T20 World Cup: The curious case of drop-in pitches

The events at the Nassau County Stadium in New York showed us that while it’s alright to be ambitious and desirous of spreading the great game, it is imperative that basic requirements are addressed with diligence and common sense to avoid red-faced embarrassment

Updated - June 11, 2024 12:44 pm IST

Published - June 10, 2024 11:49 pm IST

Ground staff working at the Nassau County International Stadium in New York.

Ground staff working at the Nassau County International Stadium in New York. | Photo Credit: DEEPAK KR

Every once in a while, depending on what the flavour of the season is, a word or a phrase hogs the limelight. For the first ten days of the T20 World Cup currently under way in the United States and the Caribbean islands, that term is ‘drop-in pitches’.

Drop-in pitches might give the impression of being a fanciful entity, literally dropped in at the match venue to help proceedings get underway. In reality, they are not too different in preparation from surfaces at the ground itself, except that they are grown in a controlled, lab-like environment and integrated with its surroundings for various reasons.

Pitch perfect

Pitch preparation is both an art and a science, though even the most acclaimed of curators will admit to a certain apprehension until play gets underway and the character of the playing surface comes to the fore. No matter how assiduous the preparation and how careful the process has been, several factors influence how a strip behaves, among them the nature of the soil, the climatic conditions and the constituents of the pitch. Over time, curators use their familiarity with a particular city/ground to try and provide the perfect possible surface.

What is a perfect surface, one might ask. To a large extent, that depends on the format. Greg Chappell, the former Australian captain and India’s head coach for nearly two years between 2005 and 2007, told this writer a while back that a good Test pitch is one where there is a near-equal balance between bat and ball, with the dice slightly loaded in favour of the latter. For the limited-overs versions, good tracks translate to being able to play shots without fear or inhibition, owing to the fact that the USP of these encounters is the ball sailing into the stands and sending the spectators scurrying for cover.

Drop-in pitches aren’t new to cricket, or to international cricket. They are primarily in vogue in the Antipodes, in Australia and New Zealand where not all grounds are dedicated cricket venues. The Adelaide Oval and the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, among others, in Australia and New Zealand’s Eden Park in Auckland, a traditional Test venue, host Aussie Rules Football and rugby respectively and the wear and tear of these physical sports precludes the possibility of naturally grown, at-venue surfaces. Pitches are therefore ‘cultivated’ elsewhere and transported to the ground, where they are allowed to blend in with the surroundings. Most of these have decks have facilitated gripping games of cricket, and often passed muster with not so much as an eyebrow being raised.

‘Gripping’ has been one of the themes during the five matches (till the end of the India-Pakistan encounter) at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium, housed in the gigantic Eisenhower Park here in New York. It hasn’t been the only theme, though.

Left it late

Not until September 2023 was the Nassau County Stadium identified by the International Cricket Council as the third of three venues in the United States for the T20 World Cup, alongside the Grand Prairie Stadium in Dallas and the Central Broward Park & Broward County Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. The latter two have built-in pitches, but that wasn’t possible at Nassau County because the stadium itself was only constructed in an extraordinary 106 days between January and May this year. There was no option but to make the pitches elsewhere and transport them to New York; that responsibility fell on Damian Hough, the chief curator at the Adelaide Oval, who oversees the pitch preparation at the famed Adelaide Turf International.

So far, so good. Hough oversaw the preparation of ten drop-in pitches to be used for the T20 World Cup – four at the Nassau County Stadium, and the rest, a few miles away, at Cantiague Park. It is the only practice facility for the teams playing in New York. Cantiague Park is a public park – ‘It’s a bit strange, practising at a public park before a World Cup,’ Rahul Dravid, India’s head coach, tittered, two days before their tournament opener against Ireland – that currently houses six drop-in pitches, similar to the three that have been used so far for the matches proper.

Not quite the batting bonanza

It’s this ‘character’ that has come in for great scrutiny and no little censure. The World Cup was meant to be a great advertisement for cricket in general, and the 20-over format in particular, in the Land of Opportunity. It was designed to draw the Americans to the sport because for all the involvement of the expat community, if cricket is to take deep root in the American consciousness, it is imperative for the locals to embrace it.

While there have been a slew of thrilling contests and tight finishes, the big scores and the towering sixes, the bread-and-butter of the T20 game, have been conspicuously absent in New York especially. Though it isn’t as if the other grounds, both in the US and the Caribbean, have thrown up huge edifices.

More than the absence of humongous totals is how batters have been forced into survival mode in a format that encourages the exact opposite. Coming close on the heels of IPL 2024, when 200 was breached effortlessly and 300 was threatened more than once, the conditions might have come as a pleasant and welcome surprise for the bowling fraternity.

But in private, the bowlers too have admitted that the balance is so heavily tilted in their favour that it has bridged the gulf between teams even more than T20 cricket usually does.

Of all the major sports, cricket is the most dependent on how the playing surface behaves. Agreed, tennis is played on different surfaces too – red (or other shades of) clay is the most preferred, there are hard courts and then carpet-like surfaces used indoors, with grass gradually going out of circulation even if Wimbledon is the most revered of the four Grand Slams. But while the bounce might be unpredictable from time to time on grass, there is a certain trueness about how these surfaces behave that allow players to portray their best, time after time.

In cricket, especially when it comes to Test matches, pitches are doled out based on the traditional bowling strengths of the host nation. That’s why in Australia, pace and bounce are integral elements whereas in the subcontinent, dry and abrasive surfaces are the norm because they facilitate turn and reverse swing. Much of the wear and tear transpires organically – teams travelling to Australia know what to expect, as do those that come to India and Sri Lanka.

Into the unknown

New York is uncharted territory for all competing nations, including co-hosts US, and no one can say they are pleased with what they have seen so far. It wasn’t until the third match at the Nassau County Stadium that 100 was breached – imagine that – and the highest score in five completed games in 137. South Africa struggled to overhaul Netherlands’ 103, while India expertly defended 119 on Sunday against old foes Pakistan. Low-scoring contests throw up as much entertainment as, if not more than, tall-scoring batathons, but when these are accompanied by genuine threat to body and limb, cricket isn’t that much fun to watch. Or play, more importantly.

One of the main causes for the misbehaving surfaces is the lack of time for these pitches to ‘bed-in’. The ten strips, prepared and encased in steel trays, were shipped from Adelaide to Florida in December – the harsh New York winter meant there was no way they could be dropped in to a stadium yet to be constructed – and moved to New York in April before wending their way to the Nassau County Stadium and Cantiague Park in May. Considering that the only warm-up game at the Nassau County Stadium was on June 1 and its first match of the World Cup was on June 3, the timeline was hardly encouraging.

It isn’t merely the slowness or the considerable seam movement that has posed questions galore. The bounce was noticeably unpredictable during the first couple of matches, forcing the normally reticent ICC to go public about remedial measures being undertaken to redress the balance. The surfaces for the last three games have played better in that the threat of bodily harm has greatly reduced, but there is little danger of 200 being approached. That eight matches are being held in a tight 10-day period hasn’t helped either; some might say the drop-in pitches have sucked the joy out of the World Cup moving to a potentially exciting country, and they wouldn’t be wrong, you know.

Even a fresh at-venue surface needs time to be ‘broken-in’. That involves allowing the pitch to settle down in the square, with a fair few matches thrown in to facilitate the integration mechanism. Over a period of weeks, the undulations and the ridges disappear. Time wasn’t the ICC’s or the Nassau County Stadium’s greatest ally in this instance, throwing up a grim reminder that while it’s alright to be ambitious and desirous of spreading the great game, it is imperative that basic requirements are addressed with diligence and common sense to avoid red-faced embarrassment.

Once the New York leg concludes on Wednesday, drop-in pitches will fade gently into the deep recesses of memory for most stakeholders. Except for many of the players, who will nurse nasty scars and bruised egos as badges of honour. New York truly has been war minus the shooting.

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